NAFTA Pros and Cons

Why its six advantages outweigh its six disadvantages

Warehouse worker updating stock in a mobile app
•••

alvarez / Getty Images

When it was approved in 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement was the world's most comprehensive free trade agreement. It covered the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In 2020, its member economies generated approximately $26.67 trillion in gross domestic product.

NAFTA was also controversial. Politicians don't agree on whether the free trade agreement's benefits outweighed its drawbacks. Learn more about what those pros and cons are.

Key Takeaways

  • Some of the positive effects of NAFTA were increased trade, economic output, foreign investment, and better consumer prices.
  • U.S. jobs were lost when domestic manufacturers relocated to lower-waged Mexico, which also suppressed wages in U.S. manufacturing plants.
  • NAFTA renegotiations in 2018 led to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) which took effect in July 2020. The USMCA addresses some 21st-century issues like digital trade and the environment.

Pros and Cons of of NAFTA

Pros
  • Increased trade

  • Increased economic output

  • Created jobs

  • Foreign direct investment

  • Lower prices

  • Helped government spending

Cons
  • Job losses

  • Lower wages

  • Farmers out of business

  • Poorer working conditions

  • Environmental damage

  • Decreased truck safety

Pros Explained

NAFTA has six main advantages, according to a Congressional Research Service report prepared in 2017.

  • Increased trade: NAFTA more than tripled trade between Canada, Mexico, and the United States after it was enacted. The agreement reduced and eliminated tariffs.
  • Increased economic output: Greater trade increased economic output. The U.S. International Trade Commission found that full NAFTA implementation would increase U.S. growth by as much as 0.5% a year.
  • Created jobs: NAFTA's stronger growth created jobs. According to a 2010 report, U.S. free trade agreements—the lion's share of which stemmed from NAFTA—directly supported 5.4 million jobs. Trade with these countries also supported 17.7 million jobs. 
  • Foreign direct investment (FDI): This kind of investment has more than tripled. The United States increased FDI in Mexico from $15.2 billion in 1993 to $104.4 billion in 2012, and from $69.9 billion in Canada in 1993 to $352.9 billion in 2015. Mexico ramped up investment in the United States by 1,283% over the same time period, while Canada's FDI increased by 911%.
  • Lower prices: NAFTA lowered prices. U.S. oil imports from Mexico cost less because NAFTA got rid of tariffs. That reduced America's reliance on oil from the Middle East. Low-cost oil means lower gas prices. This creates lower costs of living, including lower food prices.
  • Helped government spending: NAFTA helped with government spending. Each nation's government contracts became available to suppliers in all three member countries. That increased competition and lowered costs. 

Cons Explained

NAFTA has six main disadvantages.

  • Job losses: Certain estimates indicate that it led to job losses. A 2011 report from the Economic Policy Institute estimated a loss of 682,900 jobs. California, New York, Michigan, and Texas were among the hardest-hit states. Though the estimated job gains exceed those lost, certain industries were particularly impacted. These included the manufacturing, automotive, textile, computer, and electrical appliance industries. 
  • Lower wages: Job migration suppressed wages. Companies threatened to move to Mexico to keep workers from joining unions. Without the unions, workers could not bargain for better wages. This strategy was so successful that it became standard operating procedure across many industries.
  • Farmers out of business: NAFTA put Mexican farmers out of business. It allowed U.S. government-subsidized farm products into Mexico. Local farmers could not compete with the subsidized prices. As a result, some statistics estimate that 1.3 million farmers were put out of business. Though NAFTA was meant to create enough high-wage jobs in Mexico that immigration would decrease, Mexican immigration to the U.S. increased by 79% from 1994 to 2000. The recession drove that figure to 6.9 million in 2007. In 2017, it fell to 4.9 million, roughly double where it was before NAFTA.
  • Poorer working conditions: Unemployed Mexican farmers went to work in substandard conditions in the maquiladora program. Maquiladora is where United States-owned companies employ Mexican workers near the border. They cheaply assemble products for export back into the United States. Employment in maquiladoras reached 1.2 million in 2006.
  • Environmental damage: U.S. companies degraded the Mexican environment to keep costs low. Agribusiness in Mexico used more fertilizers and other chemicals. This increased levels of pollution. Rural farmers were forced into marginal land to stay in business, which increased deforestation rates. That deforestation contributes to global warming.
  • Decreased truck safety: NAFTA allowed Mexican trucks access to the United States. Mexican trucks are not held to the same safety standards as American trucks. This provision was delayed and never fully implemented, though the U.S. did offer a pilot program for Mexican trucks to operate in the U.S. on a temporary basis.

Do NAFTA's Pros Outweigh Its Cons?

NAFTA's disadvantages are significant. Can anything justify the loss of entire industries in New York or Michigan? Worker mistreatment in the maquiladora program and severe environmental damage are also major drawbacks.

From a purely economic perspective, though, NAFTA could be considered a success. Without it, the impacts of competition from the growing economies of the European Union or China could be felt more acutely. That's critical now that both of these trade regions rank above the United States as the world's largest economies.

List Pros Cons
Trade Increased  
Jobs Created 5 million U.S. jobs 682,900 U.S. manufacturing jobs lost in some states
Wages Average wages increased Some wages suppressed
Immigration   Forced jobless Mexicans to cross the border illegally
Workers   U.S. unions lost leverage while Mexican workers were exploited
Environment   Canada exploited shale fields and Mexican deforestation increased
Oil Costs less in the United States Improved Mexican economy
Food U.S. costs lower Mexican farmers went out of business
Services U.S. finance and health care exports increased Put Mexican companies out of business
FDI Increased
Government Spending More competitive bidding on government contracts  

Evaluating NAFTA's value is not an easy or simple question. However, many experts believe that free trade agreements are a necessity for the United States. They help the U.S. compete in an ever more globalized world. 

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement

The United States, Mexico, and Canada renegotiated NAFTA on September 30, 2018. The new deal is called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). It has been ratified by each country's legislature.

Mexico was the first to ratify the agreement in 2019. The U.S. Congress passed the agreement in mid-January 2020; Donald Trump officially signed it on Jan. 29, 2020. Canada ratified it on March 13, 2020.

The Trump administration renegotiated, intending to lower the trade deficit between the United States and Mexico. The new deal is largely similar to NAFTA. There are new rules, though, in seven areas:

  • Intellectual property
  • Digital trade
  • De minimis shipment value (the value of goods that can be traded without customs duties)
  • Financial services
  • Currency
  • Labor (including a requirement that at least 40% of auto content be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour)
  • Environment (addressing illegal trafficking of wildlife, timber, and fish)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What was the purpose of NAFTA?

NAFTA was designed to decrease trade costs and increase business investment among the three North American nations. Its ultimate goal was to make North America more competitive on the world stage.

Which U.S. president signed NAFTA into law?

President George H.W. Bush originally approved NAFTA in December 1992. President Bill Clinton officially signed it into law on December 8, 1993.

Article Sources

  1. Congressional Research Service. “The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),” Pages ii-iii.

  2. The World Bank. "GDP (Current US$)."

  3. Office of the United States Trade Representative. "United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement."

  4. Congressional Research Service. “The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),” Page 11.

  5. Congressional Research Service. “The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),” Page 16.

  6. Chamber of Commerce. “Opening Markets, Creating Jobs: Estimated U.S. Employment Effects of Trade with FTA Partners,” Pages 10-11.

  7. Congressional Research Service. “The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),” Pages 20, 24.

  8. Office of the United States Trade Representative. "NAFTA Facts."

  9. Government Accountability Office. "International Trade: Foreign Sourcing in Government Procurement," Page 17.

  10. Economic Policy Institute. “Heading South: U.S.-Mexico Trade and Job Displacement After NAFTA.”

  11. Economic Policy Institute. "NAFTA's Impact on the States."

  12. Economic Policy Institute. "The High Price of 'Free' Trade."

  13. Economic Policy Institute. “NAFTA’s Cautionary Tale. Recent History Suggests CAFTA Could Lead to Further U.S. Job Displacement.”

  14. Temple University. "NAFTA and Immigration Intertwined: The Impact of the Trump Era on Mexican-U.S. Migration," Page 103-104.

  15. Pew Research Center. "What We Know About Illegal Immigration From Mexico."

  16. The University of Arizona Economic and Business Research Center. "IMMEX – Mexico’s Export-Oriented Manufacturing and Services."

  17. Sierra Club. "NAFTA's Impact on Mexico," Pages 1-2.

  18. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. "U.S.-Mexico Cross-Border Trucking Pilot Program."

  19. Department of Transportation. "North American Free Trade Agreement – U.S. Department of Transportation Regulations."

  20. International Monetary Fund. “GDP, Current Prices, Purchasing Power Parity.”

  21. Office of the United States Trade Representative. "Joint Statement from United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland."

  22. Office of the United States Trade Representative. "Ambassador Lighthizer Statement on Canada's Approval of the USMCA."

  23. Office of the United States Trade Representative. "United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Fact Sheet: Modernizing NAFTA into a 21st Century Trade Agreement."

  24. Congressional Research Service. "The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)," Summary.